June 13, 2015 admin

PURPOSE: I Wonder If I Can Do It

by Howard Handlen

Age 85. Jekyll Island, GA

In a short story by Somerset Maugham, entitled SALVATORE, the author writes about a simple fisherman who lives on the Italian island of Ischia. Maugham begins by saying, “I wonder if I can do it.” He goes on in just a few pages to recount the life Salvatore had.

It was one with constant disappointments; he had to spend a wretched time in the king’s navy, ever longing for the island home he loved so. He fell ill to chronic rheumatism in China and was invalided out of the navy. Arriving home his sweetheart tells him she cannot marry him, as his family thinks him in too humble circumstances and she herself will not marry a man who would never be strong enough to work like a man. Though his life is shot through with misfortune, he never complains; he never blames anybody for anything.

In young manhood Maugham describes him as “a fellow … still with that ingenuous smile and those trusting, kindly eyes that he had as a boy. He had the most beautiful manners I have ever seen in my life.” Maugham concludes by saying “I started by saying that I wondered if I can do it and now I must tell you what it is I have tried to do. I wanted to see if I could hold your attention for a few pages while I drew for you the portrait of a man, just an ordinary fisherman, who possessed nothing in the world except a quality that is the rarest, the most precious and the loveliest that anyone can have. Heaven only knows why he should have so strangely possessed it. All I know is that it shone in him with a radiance that, if it had not been so unconscious and so humble, would have been to the common run of men hardly bearable. And in case you have not guessed what the quality was, I will tell you. Goodness, just goodness.”

The road to high good character is paved with acts of goodness.

Who can say that Maugham was wrong? The road to high good character is paved with acts of goodness. In my life I came early to understand that a life well lived cannot be without just plain goodness. Such a life hinges on adhering to the the moral rights and wrongs I learned from my parents, the moral constraints and philosophical reasoning taught by my teachers, and not least the observation that came late to me that the truly happy people in this world were those who owned that precious goodness Maugham spoke of in its many manifestations, irrespective of social place and standing.

every right carries with it a corresponding responsibility

The moral principle that ran through all these things was this: every right carries with it a corresponding responsibility; every right is conditional. I cannot think of one that is not. Means and ends are always joined; when they are forced apart, nature is aggrieved, as, for example, it is in our time when sex is contrived to be irrelevant to, and separate from, its self evident purpose universally demonstrated in all of biological nature.

Some famous people have noted the inseparability of rights and responsibilities, means and ends: Justice Holmes famously asked, “Does one have the right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater (when there is no fire)?” Justice Potter Stuart put it this way: “It’s not so much whether one has the right to do something, as it is whether the something is the right thing to do.” The Catholic prelate Fulton Sheen actually offered a definition of the concept ‘freedom.’ He said that there were three versions of human freedom abroad in the world: one had it that freedom is the right to do as you please (in western societies) or that it is the right to do as you must (in totalitarian societies), and finally the true definition, the right to do as you ought. In the moral order, he argued, rights and wrongs are not subject to the democratic whim of the voters. “In the moral order right is right if nobody (none of the voters) is right, and wrong is wrong is wrong if everybody (all of the voters) is wrong.” He added that legality does not always mean morally right.

the essential purpose of life is to know what really matters and what really does not, and do them however inconvenient they may be.

The separation of rights from their constraints in societies is in my view the basic cause of the anxiety and unrest in its members. Indeed the most often words heard in public speech are ‘rights’ and ‘freedom.’ But I have not heard anybody define these words. We hear then shouted in every public forum; and not just shouted; we demand them as we we march in the street. The Founding Fathers acknowledged them, especially in the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights. The Fathers certainly knew that such rights did not come without conditions, but they did not make a Bill of Responsibilities. Nobody asked for it then and nobody shouts or marches now demanding responsibilities.

I regret to say that I have not always acted out these convictions; I simply know that no life really worth living is possible without understanding this simply. I am a very old party now but I can attest to the wisdom of all the people who told me, in word and deed, that the essential purpose of life is to know what really matters and what really does not, and do them however inconvenient they may be.



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